Florida police charged Howell “Trai” Donaldson III, a St. John’s graduate who once worked for the New York Mets, Adidas and the NBA, with four counts of first-degree murder in connection with a series of shooting deaths that police say could be the work of a serial killer.
Donaldson is a suspect in the slayings of four people, authorities said, and the city’s Seminole Heights neighborhood was on edge for over a month as a murderer terrorized the area.
Donaldson, 24, was taken into custody at a McDonald’s restaurant on East 13th Avenue in Ybor City just before 5 p.m. on November 28. Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan told the media shortly after the arrest that he was “optimistic on this one but time will tell.”
Heavy spoke with a source who said he was close with the suspect and his family, and expressed shock at hearing the news of his friend’s arrest, whom he described as the high school’s “class clown.”
Read on to learn about the suspected serial killer’s background, and why those close to Donaldson believe authorities may have the wrong man in custody:
A Close Friend Believes Donaldson Was in the ‘Wrong Place at the Wrong Time’ & Is Innocent
A self-described “close friend” of Donaldson, who requested to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the case, told Heavy that he wholeheartedly believes police arrested “the wrong man” in connection with a series of deaths that have haunted the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa.
The friend, who said he is in a state of shock along with others close to the alleged killer, added that he has known Donaldson for nearly ten years, and played alongside him on the basketball court at Alonso High School in Tampa, where the two also graduated together.
“Just like everyone else who knows him, I’m not believing anything that I’m hearing,” the man told Heavy. “For as long as I’ve known Trai and what I’ve known from him and the person that he truly is, there is no way…I know they have the wrong dude, it’s got to be a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. This just cannot be possible.”
In the ten years that I’ve known the guy, been friends with him, I’ve never even seen him or heard of him getting into a fight or physical altercation. Trai was the captain on my basketball team. You wouldn’t believe this, yes he was that guy. We graduated together in 2011 from Alonso High School.
The police are doing their job, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. I mean it’s a bad look. You’re in the area and you match the description and all that, but the dude has never even been arrested before, you know what I mean? Yes, we used to do some stupid teenage stuff back in the day, but we never did anything extreme, just typical teenager pranks. Maybe we’d heckle people together at a football game for example, but absolutely never did anything that would cause anybody any harm, ever. And that was far from what our real lives were like on a day-to-day basis. It was all about basketball, chilling, hanging out and having a good time.
The source said that he was never aware of Donaldson ever doing any kind of drugs, or having any mental disorders that would have caused him to be medicated. He described the suspect as growing up in an “upper middle class family” with loving parents who attended every basketball game, along with a younger brother whom he “was always with” and adored.
“He didn’t even smoke weed,” the friend said. “I’ve known him a long time. Check this out, this was the kind of guy that Trai was…he drove back in high school. We had basketball practice and he always knew that I didn’t have a ride home and would have to walk. And he would be the guy that wouldn’t even give it a second guess, he’d say ‘man get in the car because I’m taking you home, you aren’t walking home.’ And he didn’t even live near me, he lived on the opposite side of town but he always had to make sure that I got home. It’s just who he was…the camaraderie we had. He had my back and I had his. I’ve known him long enough to know what kind of guy he was…there was such a special aspect to his personality. Seriously he was just so good to be around…and he was so funny. I just feel horrible for his family right now.”
The source told Heavy that Donaldson’s parents referred to him as “Howe,” though friends all knew him as “Trai,” a nickname that translates to “three” since he is third generation. He said the suspect was an average student “who did what he had to do.” The last time he saw him was in the summer, and the man said Donaldson was excited about experiencing life in New York “working for the Mets.”
He added that Donaldson was single, and though he had “plenty of women,” he wasn’t ready to settle down with anyone.
After the friend heard about the evidence behind Donaldson’s arrest, he explained that he was confused as to why the suspected serial killer would own a gun.
“Just knowing where he lived, he didn’t need a gun, so I’m not sure what is up with that,” he said. However, the friend also expressed concern over the original description of the suspect and that of Donaldson.
Police initially described the suspect as a black male with a light complexion, about 6 feet tall, with a thin build; adding that he was dressed in all-black clothing and had a large pistol.
“The weird thing, you know the guy they said they were looking for…I know he is not a short dude but I think Trai is only about 5’10 if that with shoes on,” the friend explained. “And then they were looking for a guy with a light complexion…but he was dark black, he was as black as black gets…not a light complexion dude.”
The source did admit that the man seen in surveillance video did appear to be Donaldson, but added that he “wouldn’t expect him to walk so casually while talking on the phone if he was guilty.”
When Heavy asked what his thoughts would be if Donaldson is in fact guilty or confesses to the crimes, the source responded:
People are already condemning him like he’s a dead man, like he did it. But I know these people don’t know who Trai is, and they think they can already write him off saying that he did it. If he did do it, the first thing I would do is give him a big hug and tell him I’m sorry. I wish I could’ve been there for him for whatever went wrong for him to feel like he had to do what he did if he did do it. I’d tell him I’m sorry man, and I wish I had your back like you always had mine.
“Unfortunately I will not have the answers that you want,” Chief Brian Dugan told reporters at a press conference that took place late Tuesday night. “This is an ongoing situation.”
Dugan praised those who came forward with information, saying, “Someone stepped up and did the right thing, and that’s what we needed.”
Mayor Bob Buckhorn told reporters, “Justice will occur when this individual rots in hell. Tonight, we’re about to bring justice to someone who doesn’t deserve to walk amongst us.”
Read on for further coverage of this developing story below: